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Skull Snaps -

Skull Snaps

Date: 1973 (recorded)
Release: Aztec Music #AZTCD1001
Cover Art: view / download
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“Now if you check my pulse it beats Skull Snaps.”

—Beastie Boys, “Unite”

Skull Snaps is a legendary funk album that has long been shrouded in obscurity. The band recorded their self-titled debut and a handful of singles in 1973, then vanished without a trace. In recent years, their vinyl has become ubiquitously sampled and highly collectible. The monstrous break that opens up their classic cut, “It’s A New Day,” furnished the beat for countless hip-hop hits of the mid-‘90s. But despite all their widespread influence, there’s been almost no information available anywhere on the Skull Snaps. “It’s become a very mystique thing about us,“ says bassist and singer Samm Culley. “I think everybody who stole our music must have thought that we fell off the face of the earth because they didn’t hear anything from us at all. But we’re here, and ready to be heard.”

Like so much great music, the Skull Snaps have their roots in the American South. Founding members Ervin Waters and Samm Culley both hark from Maryland, where they grew up steeped in the down home sounds of gospel and R&B. They first cut their teeth singing in rival high school bands, before heading up North in search of bigger things. Arriving New York in 1962, they formed the soulful vocal quartet the Diplomats. Doors began to open after the band scored a minor radio hit with 1964’s “Here’s A Heart.” For a few years, they regularly opened at the Apollo for such big acts as Samm & Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Gladys Knight & The Pips. At the height of their popularity they played Carnegie Hall, sharing the bill with Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Bennett. Jimi Hendrix even backed them (for $35 a night!) at a gig in Pennsylvania. “It was good with the Diplomats,” remembers Samm. “We had an extraordinary sound. We held the title as being one of the sickest vocal groups of that era.”

The British Invasion changed everything, and by 1967, the band’s fortunes were in decline. “By the late ‘60s, it was only me and Samm left in the Diplomats,” says Erv. “When the Beatles came along, singing and playing their own instruments, everybody else had to do the same. Things just moved in a different direction after that.” Vocalists first and foremost, Samm and Erv got hip to the times, picked up the bass and guitar respectively, and got busy mastering their instruments. After a few stabs at a comeback, the Diplomats released their final single in 1970 for Morty Craft’s 3rd World label. Side A, “Sure As The Stars Shine,” was yet another one of their trademark harmony ballads, but the B-side, “She’s The One,” pointed the way to the future. “That was really the birth of the Skull Snaps,” says Samm. “It was the first time we ever recorded with George Bragg on drums, and it was unbelievable the way we struck it off. We felt each other so much musically.” George adds, “It was chemistry, pure and simple. We never had to look at each other when we played, because we all knew where we were going. We knew right off we had a thing. I felt that these were the guys I should have been playing with all my life.”

By 1970, the funk revolution was in full force, and Samm, Erv and George were in the thick of it. Putting the Diplomats to rest, the trio gigged around town, backing saxophonist Warren Daniel’s band The New York People and doing their own thing as The Soul 3. “We were playing and singing the funk seven nights a week at the Cheetah, the Cellar, Smalls’ Paradise—clubs all over Harlem now long gone and forgotten,” remembers Samm. “We’d play some old Diplomats songs and Top 10. We did all the James Brown stuff, all that heavy R&B. Believe it or not, we also did things like ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ I mean, the group was magic. There was nothing we couldn’t do.” Erv adds: “Our minds, and playing, and singing were together in an instant way. We found that we had a real knack for building on top of each other and playing improvised stuff, especially George. He had some rhythms in his heart that made other musicians look at him like, ‘Are you crazy?’ We used to get a kick out of seeing all the drummers stand in front of him watching. He’d play and sing at the same time. Man, they thought he was nuts.”

The trio began looking for an opportunity to record. They found a true believer in New York DJ Al G, who brought them to the attention of rock & roll legend Lloyd Price, who in turn signed them to his fledgling GSF label. By early 1973, they had two weeks of recording time booked at the newly built Venture Sounds studio in Sommerville, New Jersey. “The Skull Snaps were the first band to ever record at Venture, and also the first band I ever recorded,” remembers Skull Snaps engineer and mixer Ed Stasium, an industry veteran who has put his stamp on albums by the Ramones, Talking Heads, Mick Jagger, and Living Color. “To be honest, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. I was just learning how to engineer. I wasn’t even getting paid at the time. I was an intern kind of guy, collecting unemployment. I think I did a pretty good job for not knowing shit. But there was a lot of sweaty palms going on.”

In the studio, the band was energized, jumping with all they had at the chance to finally get their music across. “We were playing live together as a trio all the time, and it was so tight, so big that we wanted to record that,” recalls Samm. Reaching deep, they poured themselves into the recording process. “We spent a lot of time in there,” says George. “We used to go into the studio at nine and not leave until four of five in the morning the next day. We put our talent to use and were very serious about what we were doing. And once the microphones were on, that was it. We did what we had to do.” According to producer George Kerr, the band made in two weeks an album that would have taken other bands three or four months to record. “I only produced who I liked at that time, and I loved them because they were so talented, so tight, they just fit together like hand in glove,” remembers Kerr. “Working with them was always cool, always focused, always happening,” adds Stasium. “They would roll through their three-piece thing live. It was all done in one or two takes. Just amazing.” Samm adds: “It was done so fast and so straight and to the point. We went into the studio and played, and things started to happen in there. It was quite an affair.”

Skull Snaps stands as a classic in pure funk and soul. The band’s irresistible sound embraces the black vocal group sound of early ‘70s Temptations, Chi-Lites, and Dramatics, cut with an unmistakable originality. Every song is blessed with a gospel-soaked call and response dynamic that contrasts gritty lead vocals with the band’s perfect harmonies. “The singing was powerful,” says Samm. “Everybody had such strong lead voices. We all took turns singing lead. That’s what made the Skull Snaps so different from everybody else.” “Our harmony was also unique,” adds George. “I did the low parts, Ervin was in between that, and Samm was on high. And it just grew from that.” Instrumentally, Samm’s unbeatable bass grooves and Erv’s scratchy wah-pedaled guitar mesh with Bert Keyes’ lush orchestrations and funky horn arrangements, while George’s devastating drums takes everything higher. “We went through the soul and funk and got into and the fatness of the music,” says Samm. “That’s why all the tracks were so powerful.”

The record opens with the love-is-the-drug anthem, “My Hang Up Is You,” which drives to the ears like a familiar hit. Retreating from wholesome themes, the band moves on to sing the glories of the ghetto hustler in “I’m Your Pimp,” a song used by legendary New York DJ Frankie Crocker as his show’s closing theme. Adding political heft to the record, “It’s A New Day” proclaims an era when black people “…ain’t gonna step to the back of the bus no more!” The album is rounded out by the deliciously mid-tempo soul ballads “Having You Around,” “I Turn My Back On Love,” and the exceptionally catchy “I’m Falling Out of Love.”

The album in the can, the band searched for a name. “Until then, we had been recording as the Diplomats,” explains Samm. “But people didn’t know us for making funky music, so we decided we needed to come up with a new name, something catchy. So we threw it all up and down, but still didn’t know what to call ourselves. And then Lloyd Price said, your music is so powerful it just cracks people’s skull, man. So that was it. That’s why on the album you saw the skeleton standing there with the skull in his hand lookin’ at it and the other pieces are on the floor. That was the whole concept behind the band.”

In mid-1973, a few promotional singles of “It’s A New Day” were released by GSF and started getting airplay by DJs in the New York area. The band held their breath, allowing themselves to dream a little. Copies of the album started trickling out. Then, just as quickly as it began, things fell apart. “The reason the record became a collectors item instead of a giant hit was because GSF closed their doors on it,” claims producer George Kerr. “GSF didn’t do us no justice on this record at all,” remembers Erv with more than a hint of bitterness. “They way it looked to me, they didn’t really intend to go so far with us, except maybe as a tax write-off. They didn’t realize or care what they had on their hands.” “Not that many copies got out there,” recalls Samm. “I remember the promotion being stopped. That record had already been passed to (DJ) Frankie Crocker. All the correct steps were being made. But then the company suddenly folded. They were closed and gone so fast you didn’t know which way was up with them. We could have been a success had we been on any other label at that time with that record.” Erv adds: “If we could have got in control of the album, maybe we could have hustled and got it out there to the public. But when you got families, the children come first. We had to move on. When you have the resources, you can do anything you want to do. We had nothing.” “If our record had come out now instead of then, it would be downloaded and wouldn’t get lost through the cracks,” concludes Samm. “It’s a whole different day…a different world. Ain’t no telling what could’ve been.”

The fiasco with GSF left the band in dire financial straights. “We never really got paid for doing the record,” recalls Erv. “I felt very proud of what we had done, but my pockets were crying,” adds George. Still, the band was able to keep it together in 1973 long enough to record a cover version of Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” on Buddah under the alias of All Dyrections and to back Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on his “Africa Gone Funky” single for Queen Bee. By 1975, when Grill released the final Skull Snaps single, “Ain’t That Lovin’ You / Al’s Razor Blade,” the band had already parted ways. “We played with everybody in the world,” remembers Erv. “But we did not play together as the Skull Snaps. We couldn’t get no mileage off that in the United States.” Down but not out, Erv toured with the Shirelles as their lead guitarist before becoming a school safety officer in the mid-‘80s. “Each of us had his own thing going on. We found sustenance in playing wherever we could, just to keep from saying, ‘I give up on music.’ We’re diehards, even if we had to do something like get jobs and play on weekends. We still kept music at the forefront of our lives.” Samm went on to produce and play on albums by the Fatback Band, Lloyd Price, and others. “It was in our hearts to play,” he says. “Music kept changing, but I was able to raise my kids and do all the average things that most people do. Not necessarily on the level that I would have loved. But I stayed in the business. If it wasn’t going to be music, I wasn’t gonna do it.” An unsung talent, George stayed behind the kit. “I started young and kept on going with the music. It’s been cool, but sometimes gigs don’t happen and you still gotta pay that rent.”

While the guys remained off the radar taking care of business, the break at the beginning of “It’s A New Day” was being sampled by a ridiculous amount of hip-hop artists. “I thought I heard a few things that were familiar,” laughs George. “But I just let it go by. But I had no idea until recently just how sampled my drums were.” “Everybody sampled us,” Samm proclaims. “The list is stupendous. We were bigger here in the States than we really realized with all of the sampling.” Erv adds: “We didn’t know nothing about all these rappers using our music until we got hip to the computer a few years back. The computer is the best thing that ever came about. We’ve been burning up computers trying to find out what’s what.” “I tell Erv and the guys all the time that when I see Bill Gates, I’m gonna kiss his ass and say thank you,” says Samm with a laugh. “The computer helped us to get on top of everything.”

It was through the Internet that Ady Croasdell of Kent Records managed to track down the guys and arrange for a comeback concert in the UK. In June of 2004, Samm and Erv played a triumphant “Diplomats Meet The Skull Snaps” set at the 6Ts Cleethorpes Northern Soul Weekender. “It was more than 3,000 people there,” remembers Samm. “We had absolutely no idea until then just how big we were in England. The place was jammed packed. We came out on the stage with a skull with the eyes flashing and the whole place went crazy. We left them jumping straight up and down singing ‘I’m Your Pimp.’ It was unbelievable. I’m saying, ‘How can this be?’ Thousands of people shouting out “I’m Your Pimp’”. Erv couldn’t have been more surprised by the reception. “I’m looking at Samm and he’s looking at me and we couldn’t believe it. The way those people treated us over there was like the Skull Snaps was some legendary Rolling Stones or something. It was one of the high points in my life. It was gratifying and it made us come back and get busy.”

With this reissue, the band is officially back and ready for the future. “We’re happy to re-release Skull Snaps,” says Erv. “This was a deep record. It should open up doors and blow minds.” “I think it’s about time we’re finally in the position to start pulling things together and get back to some real music,” Samm concludes. “We’re on top of the Skull Snaps again, and you’re gonna see some heavy stuff come out of that. New music, unreleased cuts, tours. We got some great, great things coming.”

Finally, it’s a new day.

Players:

  • Samm Culley
  • Erv Waters
  • George Bragg

Tracks:

  1. My Hang up Is You (Kerr) – 4:04
  2. Having You Around (Smith) – 4:29
  3. Didn’t I Do It to You (Culley/Waters) – 3:18
  4. All of a Sudden (Culley/Waters) – 3:25
  5. It’s a New Day (Woods) – 3:05
  6. I’m Your Pimp (Kerr) – 4:06
  7. I Turn My Back on Love (Culley/Waters) – 2:46
  8. Trepasssing (Robinson) – 4:04
  9. I’m Falling Out of Love (Culley/Waters) – 2:45
  10. Al’s Razor Blade (Bonus Track)
  11. Ain’t That Loving You (Bonus Track)

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One Response:

  1. L Waters -

    I am a member of skullsnaps and we have a new CD out and we are playing live again for more info cotact me L Waters at skullsnaps@verizon.net for more info

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